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Actor finds title role in Hartford Stage 'Macbeth' to be 'one hell of a ride'

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"It's a hell of a ride every night."

That's actor Matthew Rauch's assessment of the Hartford Stage's production of William Shakespeare's "Macbeth," which is playing in repertory with Marivaux's "La Dispute" through November 10 at the downtown Hartford theater.

Anyone who has caught Rauch's bravura performance in the title role would no doubt agree, judging by his anguished shouts, his angry eyes, his furtive glances and his tightly controlled movements as he depicts the loyal Scottish warrior's descent into murder, madness and fury. It's a ride, however, that the actor looked forward to playing, knowing that the production would be helmed by the Hartford Stage's Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak.

Although this "Macbeth" marks Rauch's first experience being directed by Tresnjak, the two have been aware of each other professionally for a number of years and, as Rauch puts it, "I've been eyeballing him as someone I would like to work with." Needless to say, he jumped at the chance to do the play and perform title role in Hartford.

"It's an ageless play with an iconic leading role," he said in a recent interview. "I am extremely lucky to be collaborating with a great director and working closely with another actor who I adore greatly," he says, here referring to Kate Forbes, who plays Lady Macbeth. "This has been an amazing experience that I am sure will continue to unfold as the run progresses," he adds.

Not that Rauch is unfamiliar with Shakespeare. His first professional job out of school was as Cassio in a production of "Othello" and several summers ago was part of the repertory company for the New York Public Theater's Shakespeare in Park, where he performed in "The Winter's Tale" and "The Merchant of Venice," continuing with the latter for its subsequent sold-out Broadway engagement. He has played the title role in "Henry V" and played Malcolm at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., in a previous encounter with "Macbeth." In addition to Shakespeare, he's well-versed in other classic drama as well, through productions for New York's Red Bull Theater of "The Revenger's Tragedy," "Edward the Second," and "The Duchess of Malfi." A graduate of Princeton University, Rauch received an MFA from the American Repertory Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University.

"The more I do Shakespeare," he relates, "the more I want to do more of it." He calls the Bard "the greatest writer in the English language" and is impressed by what he regards as "Shakespeare's enormous reach which makes him enormously ingrained into our own culture."

"Macbeth," in particular, he sees as "the zeitgeist of the world particularly now." In his view, "the themes of the play are relevant to what's happening in the world. It's a play about what it means to be ambitious and the consequences of specific actions." When the play opens, he explains, Macbeth has proven himself on the battlefield, but remains a loyal subject of the King. When presented with the prophecies by the three witches, he is flattered but initially dismisses them. His wife, however, is less cautious and ultimately convinces him to murder the King by calling upon his ambitions.

"Macbeth probably has the greatest imagination of any other character in Shakespeare," Rauch adds. "He can jump to logical conclusions right away. He sees the calculus in recognizing the consequences of his actions. He understands that what he has set in motion will lead to some very bad stuff. He becomes ruthless and violent in logical service to his vision of what must happen." Rauch indicates that he has seen productions of the Scottish play in which he feels he missed the connective tissue that explained Macbeth's transition. He explains that both he and Tresnjak wanted to make sure that the play made sense in showing how a person could move so quickly and substantially.

Rauch calls the work "the ur-play about violence and darkness. It is swift, lean and relentless as well as among the shortest plays in the canon." He appreciates Tresnjak's vision of the play as "a fever dream" in which the first three acts move with increasing velocity to the end of the banquet scene in which Macbeth is tormented by Banquo's ghost. In Rauch's view, Macbeth is not a villain in the same way that Iago in "Othello" is a villain. "He is a good and loyal soldier in a violent and barbaric world, who makes a decision that is ultimately tragic to his wife and those around him," he states.

Tresnjak, he explained, has staged the play from a minimalist point of view including designing a beautiful set that reflects the director's belief that the play has a stripped down bareness. According to Rauch, Tresnjak would often mention the Beckettian effect he was trying to achieve in the play which serves to emphasize the psychological landscape. There is, he continues, an existential element at play about summoning a choice that has immeasurable consequences.

This is not Rauch's first experience at Hartford Stage. A number of years ago he appeared in the world premiere of Lanford Wilson's "Book of Days" under the direction of Marshall W. Mason which subsequently went on to New York City. "It was a really great experience," he recalls of his first experience at Hartford Stage. "I never forget what each theater I've worked in feels like," he states. "When I walked into the theater after the first rehearsal for "Macbeth," I felt it all rushing back to me. It's thrilling to come back as a more seasoned actor."

The actor has somewhat mixed feelings about being part of Hartford Stage's fall repertory company, yet only appearing in one of the plays. "I can feel a little isolated from the company when I know they are performing 'La Dispute' and I am not in it." But he is quick to acknowledge that when he is playing Macbeth, there are lengthy periods of non-stop action separated by only brief moments off-stage. "I am grateful for the rest, so I can give one hundred percent to the part," he quickly adds.

Rauch is also looking forward to exploring other Shakespeare roles in his future. "I'd be thrilled to try Hamlet before I get too old for the part," he explains, finding "great resonance" in the character and the play. Other Shakespearean roles that interest him include Antony in "Antony and Cleopatra" and Brutus in "Julius Caesar," he muses, "there are a lot of good ones." He also anticipates that he'll want to explore Macbeth again sometime down the road.

He can't initially explain the current interest in "Macbeth" with an upcoming production at Lincoln Center Theatre in New York starring Ethan Hawke and next Spring bringing Kenneth Branagh's production of the play to the Park Avenue Armory. This summer saw a one-person adaptation featuring the Scottish actor Alan Cumming and people have compared Walter White's journey on "Breaking Bad" as having similarities to that of Macbeth. "I don't know why it is happening," he says, "but with Macbeth's time populated by a world of killers, and the world today saturated and anesthetized by violence, there is a certain resonance with a modern audience."

"Macbeth" runs in repertory at Hartford Stage through November 10. For a complete schedule and to order tickets, call the box office at 860.527.5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.

To keep up with theatrical events in Connecticut, please consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner by clicking on the "Subscribe" button at the top of this article. A copy of each article will sent to your inbox as it is posted to the Examiner website.

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